The U.S. Navy’s top aviation officer, Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, has offered new details about what the service expects from its future MQ-25 Stingray tanker drones. Based on his comments, the plan is for the final unmanned aircraft to nearly double the operational range of carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, a significant increase over the initial requirements.
In an interview with the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings, Shoemaker, who holds the position of Commander, Naval Air Forces, said the goal was for each MQ-25 to be able to dispense more than approximately 2,200 gallons, or nearly 15,000 pounds, of fuel 500 miles from the carrier. At present, the Super Hornets have an effective combat radius of around 450 miles.
“The MQ-25 will give us the ability to extend the air wing out probably 300 or 400 miles beyond where we typically go,” Shoemaker explained. “That will extend the reach of the air wing, and when we combine that with additional weapons we are buying, we will get an impressive reach.”
The fuel load Shoemaker described is 50 percent greater than the minimum figure the Navy had provided in the materials it submitted as justification for the multi-mission MQ-25 designation in 2016. The service had asked for the new moniker after deciding to change the pilotless plane’s mission from long-range strike and reconnaissance to tanking following the end of tests of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B as part of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program and the cancellation of the follow-on Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) project.
It also appears that the idea is for the drones to fly more than twice as far before refueling any aircraft. Based on the interview questions in Proceedings, an initial concept of operations saw the unmanned tankers providing fuel only 200 miles out from the carrier.
And when Shoemaker mentioned new weapons, he was most likely referring to the Navy’s interest in advanced stand-off bombs and missiles, such as the AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) glide bomb and AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Combined with the extended range the Stingrays would provide, these could give F/A-18E/Fs, and eventually F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, the ability to engage targets at even greater distances.
These new details reinforce earlier reporting that suggested the Navy was focusing almost exclusively on the MQ-25 as a tanker, which could free up the carrier air wing’s Super Hornets from having to fly that mission, at least in the near term. Initially, the service said the Stingray would be a mix of tanker and reconnaissance aircraft, reflected in its multi-mission designation.
“Right now the focus is to make it [the MQ-25] a tanker to extend the reach of the air wing and reduce some of the fatigue life expenditure on our Super Hornets,” Shoemaker said. “The only tankers we have in the air wing are the Rhinos [Super Hornets].”
On top of that, it seems that the service is looking to further downplay the recovery tanking portion of that mission in favor of mission tanking, as well. Mission tanking involves refueling aircraft well away from an aircraft carrier or land base in order reach targets at longer distances.
For the Navy, recovery tanking has the aerial refuelers flying closer to the carrier in case returning planes are running low on gas. Landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a moving target that can be changing position dramatically in rough seas, can be a difficult proposition in general, with pilots needing to make multiple passes in some instances. A recovery tanker protects against a pilot running out of fuel and having to bail out, risking injury or death and losing a multi-million dollar aircraft, before they can safely touch down on the ship.
In 2016, the Navy suggested that recovery tanking versus mission tanking would be the primary job of the MQ-25. In July 2017, the service revealed to new emphasis on providing fuel during actual missions, declaring it to be one of just two key requirements for the Stingray.
According to Shoemaker, this shift in focus is due in no small part to the Navy’s development of new technology to simplify carrier landings, aptly nicknamed Magic Carpet. The new software handles more of the work, making it easier for pilots in Super Hornets and other manned aircraft to safely and accurately plot their course.